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Is Long-term Learning Affected by Natural Disasters?

20th January 2019
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New study in Australia finds "poorer progression" amongst kids exposed to fire

E xperts from the University of Melbourne have confirmed what many of us suspected - that natural disasters affect children profoundly.

A new study which examined data from the so-called 'Black Saturday' fires in Victoria, Australia - which killed 173 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burned more than 1million acres - found that kids which saw the impact of that disaster had "poorer progression of their academic performance four years out from the fire", Popular Science reports this week.

The study "compared the changes in individual academic performance" on reading and numeracy (amongst other measures) between the school years, three and five on pupils with minimal or no fire impact to those from schools with medium or high fire impact.

J oy Osofsky, professor of paediatrics, psychiatry, and public health at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine told Popular Science that mental health symptoms could contribute to academic performance. This reflects the findings of a study conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which found that almost 50 per cent of the children studied were found to have depression or PTSD.

The Australian study, which examined data obtained from 25,000 children by the Department of Education and Training, did not examine whether the children in question were able to get "back on track". But Ann Masten, who studies resilience at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, said: “I’m optimistic that there will be a long term positive picture. Nonetheless, it’s important to document that there could be continuing delayed concerns.”

Lisa Gibbs, director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne, who worked closely with school principals and teachers, said: "It’s pretty self evident that there’s going to be distress experienced by everyone. What we know less about is how that plays out over time".

Whilst the Australian schools had support programs in place, there "wasn’t much understanding of how the disaster might affect kids on a longer timeline", according to the report. This raises the importance of school-based policies to support children in the long-term aftermath of a disaster - something Osofsky, amongst others, are doing in the US. In Australia, Gibbs is also involved in programs that support emotional literacy for children.